Program Explanation and Philosophies

Program Explanation and Philosophies

[In March of 2015 the ISU Writing Program was recognized by the Conference on College Composition and Communication with its CCCC Certificate of Excellence Award.  This overview of our program is excerpted from the application for the award.  The full text is available here.]

A Tradition of Excellence

The Illinois State University (ISU) Writing Program has a long history (more than 30 years) as an exemplary, innovative program. In 1983, we were among the first in the country to move to computer-based classrooms, long before many writing programs recognized the necessity of attending to writing in digital environments. The ISU Writing Program was also a leader in the 1980’s writing portfolio movement, joining writing programs that sought to make writing assessment more attentive to the body of student work, with a focus on peer review, revision, and audiences outside of the single classroom. In the past five years (since 2009), the ISU Writing Program has undergone a further transition, moving radically away from more traditional models for teaching and assessing writing, toward one that focuses on teaching for transfer, assessing learning rather than visible mastery, and creating “writing research” identities for ourselves and our students.


The specific mission of the ISU Writing Program is to support the work of English 101 and English 145 courses (each course has several variants; new PhD students are assigned only standard E101 courses and new Master’s students serve as consultants in E101.10), designed to serve both different populations of students as well as the needs of different colleges and programs throughout the university. Beyond our adherence to the ISU general education curriculum goals ( and our own program learning outcomes (available as another section of this module), our primary mission is to promote “citizen writing research” through a range of activities that include specific classroom pedagogies; a “grassroots” writing research publication, fellowship, and community outreach program; and our own program-based research into the intersections and complexities of our personal lived experiences as writers and learners.

The ISU Writing Program administers two general education writing courses: the English 101 series courses, part of the university’s core curriculum, include English 101 and English 101.10; and the English 145 series courses include English 145, English 145.13, and English 145.12. English 101 is capped at 23 students; English 101.10 at 18; English 145 series courses at 18 students. All courses are taught in laptop computer classrooms.

The English 101 series is part of a two-semester sequence with Communications 110 (a speech communication course) designed to foster both specific reading, writing, and speaking skills as well as more complex critical thinking skills related to writing and speaking. The English 101.10 course, equivalent to English 101, offers extra writing resources to students who self-select into the course. The English 145 series includes intermediate writing courses that focus specifically on reading and writing within disciplines and workplaces.


Institutional Description

The ISU Writing Program is productively situated within the Department of English Studies (  The ISU English Department is the largest department in the College of Arts and Sciences. The College of Arts and Sciences offers 54 programs, the largest number of academic programs offered by a college in the university (27 Bachelor, 20 Master’s, 5 Doctoral, and 2 Certificate).

In addition, our program works closely with the Committee on Critical Inquiry, a group comprised of members from the ISU Provost’s Office (Jonathan Rosenthal, Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education), the College of Arts and Sciences (Sally Parry, Associate Dean for Student and Curricular Affairs), the School of Communication ( and Milner Library ( In addition, the Director of our Writing Program, Joyce Walker, is a member of the university’s Writing Across the Curriculum Task Force (formed in 2013) and the College of Arts and Sciences Classroom Technology Committee. These institutional affiliations help keep the Writing Program connected to dialogues that shape our theoretical and physical identity within the university.


ISU Writing Program Demographics, Fall 2014:

  • Sections of ENG 101 (66 sections @ 23 students per section), ENG 101.10 (10 sections @ 18 students per section), ENG 145 (11 sections @ 18 students per section), ENG 145.13 (11 sections @ 18 students per section);
  • 75 Instructors: 9 Full-time Non-tenure Track Faculty (NTT’s), 4 Part-time Contingent Faculty, 62 Graduate Teaching Instructors (GA’s);
  • Total Students: 98 sections, approximately 2,144 students.


ISU Student Population Information:

As of December 2013 and the last available figures, on-campus enrollment was 19, 924 (17,648 undergraduate and 2,276 graduate). Of that enrollment figure, 8,785 (44.1%) were male and 11,139 (55.9%) were female. The largest number of minority students were Hispanic and African American, with Asian, American Indian or Alaskan Native, and Hawaiian or Pacific Islander also represented. International students included 131 undergraduate and 268 graduate. The largest number of students was enrolled in the College of Arts and Sciences (30%), followed by Applied Science and Technology (21%), Business (17%), and Education (13%). New students in Fall 2013 scored an average ACT Composite score of 24.0, while the average statewide and national scores were 20.6 and 20.9, respectively.


Ongoing Innovations

ISU Writing Program courses have undergone significant change since 2009, as we have moved from a generalized rhetorical approach to a genre studies/cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) approach, designed to teach a more cognitively robust method for thinking about literate practice, and to encourage the interactive formative assessment of learning-in-progress. Additionally, our program works to foster a more robust community of writing researchers at ISU, involving first-year students, advanced undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and a wide range of community members. Our community approach encourages writers of all kinds to rigorously investigate their writing practices and to share their knowledge with other members of the community.

One key change in our program since 2009 involves a focus on writers’ abilities to learn about how writing works in various situations and to then apply that knowledge in both real-world and school writing, to assess both their learning-in-progress and knowledge transfer, and to identify their goals for future learning. This focus shifts away from a “production assessment” model toward “the generation and documentation of learning” in which we design projects and activities (as well as ongoing assessments of them) that we, as a community of writers, believe are efficacious in addressing skills and concepts that can be transferred to a variety of writing situations.

This new focus defines our Writing Program as deeply and interactively experimental, as members of the community work to document their learning and to design activities and experiments that encourage new knowledge making about writing practices. One recent metaphor we have used for our program is a “writing research laboratory” where all members perform all the possible roles, including researchers, lab assistants, research subjects, cleaning crews, and so forth. Members of the community, however loosely affiliated, are encouraged to see themselves as writing researchers, but also to see themselves as participating in the larger goal of creating writing research that can help writers better understand how writing works in the world. Our ongoing goal is to help all community members understand their identities as writing researchers well beyond their work as students, instructors, or other contributors to the program. We expect that all members of the community (administrators, instructors, students, interested university faculty and staff, and Bloomington-Normal community members) will share information, ideas, strategies and research about the best practices for constructing successful writing identities through the acquisition of both specific skills and knowledge and a research-based approach to new writing situations.


Our work to transform the program over the past five years has led us to experiment with a range of new teaching practices, new ways to observe and document “uptake,” and new ways to share information among students and instructors. We feel we are only beginning. Research on learning on transfer specific to first-year writing is in many ways still in its infancy, although recent publications have begun to shine significant light on the issue. Our program has developed highly innovative approaches to teaching for learning and transfer, and we look forward to sharing what we are learning with other professionals and other writing programs across the country and internationally.


Program Philosophies

Our Writing Program is based on some specific departures from traditional models for teaching introductory writing. Our efforts to make these departures is indebted to the work of scholars such as David Smit (a review of writing instruction failing as an activity in higher learning institutions), Dave Russell (an investigation of how activity theory can help us understand the failures of general education programs), Elizabeth Wardle (a paradigm-changing look at what we can and cannot claim as the work of first-year writing), and Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs (a look at how a Writing Studies curriculum might change our approach to first-year writing instruction).

We have gained great insight from these (and other) scholars who have both helped us to think about what is not working in our approach to first-year writing, and directed our work toward finding new approaches. However, our program has also diverged in significant ways from these scholars’ contributions, and our goal in this section is to explain the foundational theories and concepts of our work.

Genre Studies: One of the terms our program uses widely is “genre studies.” We often explicitly say that we take a “rhetorical genre studies and cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) approach to the teaching of writing.” The term “genre studies” is becoming more central to the field of Composition/Literacy Studies, and many writing programs at the university level are using the term to describe changes in their approaches to teaching writing.

In the ISU Writing Program, the concept of “genre” guides our understanding of how the texts we produce are part of the range of discourse communities to which we belong (or want to belong). We use “genre” to define what we study as writers and researchers; we study specific kinds of texts produced in specific locations, in response to specific conditions. “Genre” indicates a complicated, always-in-motion relationship of a specific text to ways that text can be identified, defined and used. Thus, we try to understand why an “email” produced in a specific situation establishes a different relationship between writers and readers than a letter, a text message or a short story, as well as how different settings may require the production of widely different kinds of texts all called “email.”

For us, learning to identify and recognize the complexity of genre relationships (which are cultural, social and political as well as material) is an important step in learning how to research and evaluate one’s own textual productions as specific responses to a set of evolving genre conventions. We understand that our ability to produce texts in specific situations is governed by our knowledge and understanding of genre conventions; but also that our knowledge and understanding are never complete because varying contextual circumstances can change how a genre will be understood and used by authors and readers. With this in mind, we avoid pedagogies that explicitly teach (or imply) that genres are uncomplicated. Even genres that (at first glance) seem fairly stable and clear can spawn hybrid or brand new genres, and they can morph over time in ways that change our expectations of what a genre will look like or do. We strive to include this complexity in our activities as a program and in the writing projects we assign to students.


Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT): Activity theory, actor-network theory and cultural-historical activity theory are related theoretical frameworks that help us unpack and research writing activities and to enrich our understanding of how writing happens in the world. These theories move us away from the products people produce when they write as the most important (or even the only important) thing when analyzing writing situations. Instead, these theories help us to focus on a more complex system of activities, where different kinds of actors (human and non-human) interact in different kinds of situations. Activity theory frameworks allow us to envision situations and systems in which texts are produced, rather than “black-boxing” these activities as we do when we consider only the “artifact of production.”

A key benefit of including activity theory frameworks in our approach to writing instruction design is that we can begin to think about all writing (all textual production) as occurring within a web of relationships between people, other texts, cultural practices, modes of communication and non-human actors. Because activity theory (combined with attention to genre) can help us to “unpack” or make explicit the dynamic processes through which we gain knowledge about writing situations, it may also help us to develop practical strategies for encountering new writing situations and relating these new situations to our existing, antecedent knowledge. Not every author needs to do this kind of deep analysis for every writing situation; however, knowing how to take an “activity-based research” approach to new writing situations can help us to see nuances and complications we could not previously see, even in situations where we thought we already “knew how to do it.”


“CHAT,” which refers to Cultural-Historical-Activity-Theory, is a vital acronym for our program because it refers to a set of theories about rhetorical activity (how people act and communicate in the world—specifically through the production of all kinds of texts), that help us look at the how/why/what of writing practices. CHAT essentially takes the basics of activity theory (which tend to focus on people interacting in pairs and groups in particular situations) and adds both a “social” and “historical” dimension. It is perhaps the most robust system developed to date for thinking about writing in complex ways, in that it includes the widest possible range of interactions between humans, non-humans, tools, materials, situations and whole ecologies of environment. In this excerpt from “Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity” (2007), Paul Prior explains the concept and components of CHAT-based investigation:


CHAT argues that activity is situated in concrete interactions that are simultaneously improvised locally and mediated by historically-provided tools and practices, which range from machines, made-objects, semiotic means (e.g., languages, genres, iconographies) and institutions to structured environments, domesticated animals and plants, and indeed, people themselves. Mediated activity means that action and cognition are distributed over time and space and among people, artifacts and environments and thus also laminated, as multiple frames of field co-exist in any situated act. In activity, people are socialized (brought into alignment with others) as they appropriate cultural resources, but also individuated as their particular appropriations historically accumulate to form a particular individual. Through appropriation and individuation, socialization also opens up a space for cultural change, for a personalization of the social. Cultural-historical activity theory points to a concrete, historical rhetoric… a cultural-historical approach asks how people, institutions and artifacts are made in history.” (Prior et al. 18.6)

This kind of complexity (and investigating it) is at the core of our program’s goals. So while writers (students or instructors) in our program need not become scholars in activity theory or CHAT research, it is important for us to develop strategies as writers for incorporating a complex understanding of “knowledge” and “activity” that shape even the most (deceptively) simple kinds of writing. In the past several years, we have developed a range of texts to help us talk about CHAT in our program. Examples include the following:


In our program, we use CHAT to do the following:

  1. Create complex, dynamic mapping processes (through the research we do as instructors, students and writers) that help us to see more clearly how a text is acting and acted upon in various situations and systems;
  2. See how a text is interacting with its variously related genre-categories;
  3. Look at the complex temporal-material trajectory of a text (how it interacts with people, objects, genres and other texts) as it is produced and used;
  4. Better understand how our relationship to a text is never as simple as “knowing how to do it,” but is instead a complicated social/cognitive process in which we learn to recognize and produce a certain kind of writing.

Cognition and Transfer: The concept of “transfer” is related to the knowledge that, as literate individuals, we approach writing situations with prior knowledge of other writing situations, and this knowledge impacts the choices (conscious and unconscious) that we make. A central concept in Writing Studies theory currently, transfer research has serious implications for all aspects of developing and teaching in an introductory writing course. Thinking about transfer asks us to question whether the work we do to “teach students about writing” actually results in knowledge that students can use when engaged in writing activities outside of our courses. David Russell’s “Activity Theory and Its Implications for Writing Instruction” (1995) is one of the first texts in Writing Studies that makes this point clearly. As Russell states, “to try to teach students to improve their writing by taking a generalized writing instruction course is something like trying to teach people to improve their ping-pong, jacks, volleyball, basketball, field hockey and so on by attending a course in general ball using” (58). Our program uses research in literacy and knowledge transfer to discuss practices that may make analysis and investigation of genres-in-action (a key program goal) work as a kind of “meta” tool in an author’s writing toolkit – so that while specific writing knowledge might not transfer, perhaps an attitude toward investigating new writing situations can.

Community and Identity: Concepts of community and identity that focus on creating an effective bond between a writer and his/her writing, or among writers working together in a writing course, have been repeatedly introduced to Composition Studies in different guises throughout the 20th century. However, our program approaches “community” and “identity” by investigating, with students, the ways that different writing settings and approaches to writing can impact a writer’s disposition toward the writing task, and either assist or impede the writing process.


We are particularly interested in exploring three areas related to issues of community, cognition and identity: disposition, identity, and social environments. The first is how “disposition” (a writer’s attitude and stance toward a particular writing situation) can impact the ability to transfer knowledge from other genres he ↔ she has worked with in the past (antecedent genres). These antecedent genres always operate in the writer’s mind, but they cannot always be accessed in conscious ways, and they are not always productive. Because of the complexity of the relationship between a writer’s current and past knowledge, we are interested in making the process of acknowledging and using past writing knowledge more explicit, so that writers can make more effective use of their existing knowledges as they move into new writing situations.


The second area involves building a better understanding how a writer’s “identity” as a writer (the sum of all his ↔ her writing experiences) does and does not play into how a writer approaches and accomplishes writing tasks. This area of exploration is deeply tied to the first concept (disposition), as a writer’s specific experiences with different writing situations are the substance of his ↔ her writing identity. However, while the first area of exploration focuses on examining how different past experiences impact current knowledge and thus the writer’s approach to writing in new situations, this second concept (identity) focuses on how the sum of a writer’s experiences create a general attitude toward writing that may move across different situations. Our teacher-research in the ISU Writing Program continues to explore ways to help writers approach new situations with flexibility and creativity, and yet our assignments and activities must also maintain relevance for the kinds of writing students expect to do in the academy, the workplace and their lives as citizens.


A third somewhat more difficult and complex concept we are also interested in is the development of “social environments” that facilitate the development of cognitive flexibility in new writing situations. We do that by helping instructors think through the writing environments and assignments they create in their classrooms, but we also believe that in order to help these skills persist beyond the boundaries of a single writing class, our entire program needs to reinforce and reward these skills as relevant, and provide writers the opportunity to learn about “writing in the wild” – seeing and experiencing literate activities in a wide range of situations.


At its core, our efforts to create resources that help our writers (collectively) learn to approach writing tasks with a “writing research” perspective are based on the principle that in order to develop the ability to abstract knowledge and skills from one environment to another, an individual must have a clear sense of identity – one that authorizes him ↔ her to make such distinctions and abstractions. In other words, for writers to think about writing/research in robust ways, they must have identities as individuals who already know something about writing/research, and they must practice those identities as part of a larger structure of activities where multiple writers are engaged in similar kinds of work.


All actors within our particular community – and whatever communities they build or interact with that move beyond the borders of the Writing Program as community – should feel responsible for the project of creating and sharing knowledge about writing practices, and using these practices to shape their own productions. Our pedagogical goals and our goals for assessment, then, take shape within this framework as activities that are designed to increase the potential for agency and to decrease opportunities for interventionist stances towards literacy acquisition. At the classroom level, this model of community connects to student-driven genre investigations and student-driven assessment of learning (for both individual and collective members of a class). At the program level, results include community member research as the focus of programmatic change, as well as using that research as a tool for instructor professional development.


Writing About Writing: Our program owes a significant debt to the work of Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs (2007), and their development of a “Writing About Writing Curriculum.” However, our writing program varies from their work in significant ways. Overall, the key difference between our program and a Writing About Writing approach is that in WAW, students are introduced to a scholarly field and taught that they should have an interest in and awareness of the complexity of writing. As Downs and Wardle note, “Taking the research community of writing studies as our example not only allows writing instructors to bring their own expertise to the course, but also heightens students’ awareness that writing itself is a subject of scholarly inquiry. Students leave the course with increased awareness of writing studies as a discipline, as well as a new outlook on writing as a researchable activity rather than a mysterious talent” (559).  Essentially, the WAW course is seen as a way of applying “writing studies” content to a class that is about academic reading and writing.

In our program, students are immersed in “writing research” as daily, lived experience, and are taught to identify situations in which their thinking and research skills can be used productively. Our goal is to equip writers with specific kinds of research skills and ways of thinking about literate activity that will allow them to create personalized research plans for investigating their own writing practices and productions. One potential outcome (we hope) of this focus is that these skills and ways of thinking, applied appropriately, have the potential to both aid knowledge transfer (moving knowledge about writing more adaptively between different situations), and to create a more positive disposition towards adaptation as a key writing strategy.

Thus, our program’s focus on “Creating Writing Researchers” is a critical difference that separates us both ideologically and pedagogically from the “Writing About Writing” approach. Not only does “Creating Writing Researchers” lead to these fundamental differences in curriculum, we have found that it also impacts our attitudes about and practices of assessment in fundamental ways. The next section of this application document outlines two specific sets of activities related to the differences in approach between “Writing About Writing” and “Creating Writing Researchers.”